Published on August 25, 2017

Saving Sight: Don’t Lose Your Vision to Diabetic Retinopathy

TUPELO, Miss.—Diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of blindness in working age adults. That’s the bad news.

The good news, according to retina surgeon Heather Hancock, M.D., is that almost all vision loss from diabetes is preventable.

Diabetic retinopathy happens when high blood sugar levels cause damage to blood vessels in the retina. “This is one place where diabetes really attacks,” Dr. Hancock says. These blood vessels can swell and leak. Or they can close, stopping blood from passing through.

In the early stages, diabetic retinopathy may not cause symptoms. “If fluid leaks, it can cause blurred vision,” she says. “If bleeding occurs, it can cause the person to see ‘floaters’ or strings of blood in the eye.” The condition is rarely painful, which is why many people ignore the signs.

“Everyone with Type 2 diabetes should be checked for diabetic retinopathy upon diagnosis because 25 percent of them already have diabetic retinopathy by the time they are diagnosed with diabetes,” Dr. Hancock says.

Individuals with type 1 diabetes should be checked five years after their diabetes diagnosis, then annually thereafter.

Treatment for diabetic retinopathy depends on its severity. Laser therapy creates a small burn or scar that closes off the area of bleeding and controls abnormal blood vessel growth. “We can do laser treatments in the office,” Dr. Hancock says. “It is just light, no cutting, no pain and no risk. The patient can even drive himself home.” Medications can also be used to treat the condition in its early stages.

“If the retina doesn’t get enough blood, the body starts making abnormal blood vessels to compensate,” Dr. Hancock says. “If this happens, the retina can detach, and we have to do surgery to fix it.”

The surgery is done at North Mississippi Medical Center under mild sedation. After numbing the eye, Dr. Hancock performs surgery using a microscope, and the patient goes home the same day. “You go home with an eye patch,” she says, “and come to our office the next day to have your eye checked.”

As with most conditions, the earlier diabetic retinopathy is detected, the more effective treatment can be. “Mississippi has lots of diabetes,” Dr. Hancock says. “I encourage people to use their wellness benefits. Get your health screenings. Keep your blood sugar down as best you can.”

But even for people who have put off being seen, the NMMC Retina Center can offer hope.

“People tend to get discouraged, but we do all we can to improve vision,” Dr. Hancock says. “Even if you were told 10 years ago that nothing could be done, maybe now we can do something. If you’re not sure if you should come, you should come.”

Dr. Hancock sees patients along with retina surgeon Khushboo Agrawal, M.D., at the NMMC Retina Center, located at 606 Brunson Drive, between 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 8 a.m.- noon Friday. No referral is required. For more information, call 1-800-THE DESK (1-800-843-3375).

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